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Playing on Real Life : Experience Guides Young Actors in Video About Drugs, Gangs

Times Staff Writer

Hector managed to say no--to drugs, to gangs, to a dead-end life. He knows scores of other cholos who weren’t so lucky, if only because living a life free of drugs is a lot more difficult--in his view--than just saying no.

A lot of it has to do with America being a land of haves and have-nots, he said. Even he can see that drugs and gangs flourish in a climate of desperation.

“I know guys who have had to run around barefoot since they were babies,” he said. “How do you compare barefoot to $275 a day--which is what you can get for selling drugs? Drugs are a great big lie, but as some guys figure it, you might as well live it up, since your life’s going nowhere.”

Hector (who asked that his real name not be published) is a 14-year-old ninth-grader at Lewis Junior High. His older brother, whom he once idolized, persuaded him to join a gang, which he left at his mother’s urging. Hector has dreams. His mother said he had every right to follow them free of fear.

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Dream of Acting Career

One of his dreams is becoming an actor, which he will be in a special project carried out under the auspices of Dan Herrera, 35, who teaches drama at Sherman Elementary School in the barrio. And, every day after school, he supervises 20 teen-agers in the Sherman Heights Junior and Senior High Drama Club.

The goal is to make an anti-drug, anti-gang video called “School Boy.”

Hector has a starring role as a gang leader in the story of a straight-A student whose mother is an alcoholic. Under pressure from his peers, he joins a gang. Life is never the same again.

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The boy leaves the gang, but only after his girlfriend is murdered and he’s wounded in a barrio shoot-out. The video attempts to show the bitter lessons that come from having been a member of a gang, or in giving in to drugs.

Hector has seen a lot as a gang member cruising the barrio’s sometimes lawless avenues. He said he saw a teen-age boy try to force a child half his age to gulp down a tablet of LSD. He said neighbors intervened and reported the matter to police. He often sees kids “strung out” on crack and PCP.

He once saw a friend get stabbed at a party. The friend vanished for months and then showed up at a festival as a gang member who appeared to have no recollection of the near-fatal injury he had sustained. Hector said that incident alone convinced him to ditch the gang--if the stabbing wasn’t enough, his friend’s stupidity certainly was.

And now, Hector is on the stage, lending a commanding presence to a script written with heartfelt sincerity that smacks of the authenticity of the street. He and five other “gang members” are putting a chokehold on a would-be convert, using force as the gang’s way of building a membership.

Director’s Warning

Herrera, who studied drama in New York before migrating to San Diego several years ago, is trying to prevent his thespian charges from going too far and actually hurting their scrawny classmate. This is, after all, only a play.

At that moment, two San Diego Police officers walk in. For a moment, the place falls quiet. Officer Joe Howie is in the video, as a cop reading rights to gang members under arrest.

“Gangs are not as big as they used to be around here,” said Howie, who walks the Sherman beat as a member of WECAN (Walking Enforcement Campaign Against Narcotics). “But drugs are a big problem. Two years ago, gangs were really bad. There was a shooting in front of the school. A young kid was shot. The school asked the department to do something about it. So, we formed the WECAN unit. Two officers are assigned to the school, seven days a week, 12 hours a day.”

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Victoria Uribe, a 17-year-old senior at Mission Bay High School and a member of Herrera’s troupe, lives in the area. She also said that gangs have subsided while drugs have not.

Asked in front of the class if drugs are a problem, she and her peers laughed uproariously.

“I’m afraid,” she said, “they’re a big problem.”

“Syringes are found on the school grounds all the time,” Herrera said.

Even so, Howie believes the perimeter of the school itself--situated at 450 24th St. in Sherman Heights--is safe.

“But go two blocks either direction,” he said, “and it’s a problem.”

Howie also believes it would be foolhardy to think that gangs have ceased to be a problem, just because the ranks have thinned.

“You still have rough Hispanic gangs,” he said, “such as Red Steps, Shell Town, Logan Heights or Logan, or in this area the Sherman gang, which isn’t as big as it used to be.

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“I don’t think the Hispanic gangs pose as big a problem as the black gangs, if only because the blacks like firearms so much more. The rough black gangs are the Crips, Piru--Skyline Piru and Eastside Piru--59 Brims and Syndo Mob. We just got a federal indictment against the Syndo Mob and locked up 17 of them.”

Howie said a cause-and-effect relationship exists between drugs and gangs. Black gangs have meatier arsenals, he said, if only because their drug of choice is rock cocaine, the selling of which brings handsome profits. He said Hispanic gangs tend to prefer heroin and PCP.

He likes the video because it warns of the dangers of drugs while probing the madness of gangs.

“It shows what really happens in a gang, and with drugs,” Howie said. “How you get sucked into both.”

Hector likes the video because of its message, which he said he has taken to heart.

“I do have dreams,” he said. “I’d like to be something big, so I can help people out--my people. The people of this barrio. The kind of help they need is something drugs and gangs can’t give.”


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